Shared Memories: Two Sisters Speak About Their Lives as Lao Women in the United States
Profilers: Sheena Tehrani, Emelyn Najera, Vahan Bedelian
Chomchay and Bangbay
Introductions and The Journey to the U.S.
Let’s start with introductions, and where you were born. Where did you grow up?
BANGBAY: My name is Bangbay Siboliban.
CHOMCHAY: Chomchay Siboliban Mukai.
BANGBAY: And both of us were born in Vientiane, Laos. I’m thirty-five. She’s thirty six.
CHOMCHAY: We left Laos and lived in a refugee camp in Thailand. From there we immigrated to San Francisco, and then from there we moved up to Seattle.
Do you remember your time in Laos?
BANGBAY: I was only three months old when we left the country, so I don’t remember anything.
CHOMCHAY: I don’t remember, but the thing is, that I’ve heard stories and so I feel that they are part of my memory, which seems unrealistic since I was 3.
Can you describe the process your family went through to arrive to Thailand?
CHOMCHAY: It was a pretty secretive ordeal. We had an uncle who lived in Thailand and he paid folks to help us escape Laos. We didn’t have a plan, so that day two men came and told us that day that we were leaving Laos and we couldn’t pack. So we had to pretend that we were going to the movies, and dress like we were going to see a show. And then we just left that night and didn’t go back to Laos.
BANGBAY: And our dad didn’t tell our grandparents that we were leaving, we just dropped and left.
Do you remember when you first came to the United States?
CHOMCHAY: I remember we lived in a small apartment in San Francisco and playing on the streets in “The Tenderloins.” I think because we were so young it was very difficult to understand what was really happening and we grew up thinking that that was the norm, that people came to the U.S. the way we did. I think as kids you don’t really understand the big picture you just see what’s going on in your world and think that happens in everybody’s house.
BANGBAY: And I feel that I didn’t have much awareness of it, even until after I finished college, and it really came about from wanting to know more about that time, but as a kid, it was never something I thought about.
Was there a Lao community where you grew up?
CHOMCHAY: Well we did grow up with some Lao folks that came on the airplane with us to San Francisco. They were put up in the same apartment complex that we were in, and so we grew up with them, calling them our cousins, our uncles, our aunts, but they had no blood relation to us. They kind of became our extended family, if you will. We still keep in contact with them, but we lived very different lives.
Family, Memories, and the Pathet Lao
Do your parents remember the war? Do they have any stories that resonated with them?
CHOMCHAY: Our mother is from a rural village in northern Laos. Her village was close to the Ho Chi Minh trail and so she remembers… As a young girl, the bombs going off.
BANGBAY: Yeah, and up in that area, there are a lot of caves, and one of the things that the villagers would do when the bombs would happen is that they would go and hide in the caves.
What were your parents’ occupations?
CHOMCHAY: Well, they were both teachers. Our father taught older kids. Maybe high school and college level age. And our mother taught young kids. Elementary school age.
You mentioned that your parents were Royalists. Can you explain what this means?
CHOMCHAY: So they were part of kind of the old regime and so the Royalists were followers of the king and queen. They kind of had a different way to look at things, like they were Buddhists, they had Lao pride. So it was more about just being faithful to the country. And then when the new regime came, which was more communist, they had this different way of looking at how politics should work, and they thought they were being more progressive. There was just a clash of old way of thinking and new way of thinking.
Your two oldest siblings were not quite as young as you two were when you family arrived to the U.S. Do you think they had a more difficult time coping with the change?
BANGBAY: Our sister actually told us a story about when they were getting ready to leave. You know, being kids, they wanted to grab some of their belongings. Our brother was able to get a stable box or a bag. Our sister had something else but with a hole in it, so whatever she would grab kept falling out. That’s actually kind of indicative of how I feel their lives were when they came here, where maybe they felt like they had the short end of the stick. Whereas we were a bit more fortunate being so young, and just being able to start earlier here.
CHOMCHAY: Yeah, and sort of start with a clean slate.
It is said that the Pathet Lao was successful because the U.S. ceased military involvement in the war in the early ’70s. Do you believe this is true?
BANGBAY: I think the U.S. had a lot of self interest in destabilizing the Southeast Asian region and the fact that after the war and the U.S. left, the Pathet Lao took over in Laos and that the Khmer Rouge took over in Cambodia… I feel like the U.S. had a hand in helping these groups come into power, and taking over the region and creating all of this instability.
Growing Up in the U.S.
Growing up in the U.S., did you at any time feel different from any other children who had lived here their entire lives?
BANGBAY: Well I think because we often didn’t grow up around other Lao people and other Asian communities, there was always this sense of needing to clarify who we were. For instance, we grew up in San Francisco where there’s been Chinese people there for many generations. I feel like there’s a huge difference between our peers there who might be third generation Chinese and then we were freshly in the country. So there’s always the sense of I wanted to fit in but I also wanted to let people know that I wasn’t that way either. There was something different.
CHOMCHAY: Yeah, distinguishing ourselves from other Asians and always having to give a geography lesson every time we met someone. We would say “Oh we’re from Laos,” and people would always say: “I don’t know where that country is. What is that? What language is spoken there?” And still, to this day, that colors our experience.
I mean, we grew up how we grew up, but I think as an adult we’re able to learn a lot more about how those experiences shaped us. And going back to Laos as an adult is centering ourselves culturally because we really didn’t have a point of reference. There wasn’t a Lao town. There wasn’t a Lao restaurant. There was nothing that spoke to Lao people in the U.S. So for us to say we grew up a certain way, we kind of just grew up with whatever mix of culture that we brought into the house. I think that as I grew older, I wanted to know more about my culture, but as a kid growing up, I just wanted to fit in. I didn’t want to speak a different language so much, I didn’t want to eat foods that were so different, you know, or participate in things that were so different than the mainstream America we grew up in. I think for me, I wanted to fit in more, because when you’re trying to fit in you kind of hide or not highlight things about you that make you different.
BANGBAY: Well I feel that I actually wanted to be different a lot of times, but I didn’t specifically highlight the Lao thing.
Laos During The War
On Laos during The American War in Viet Nam:
BANGBAY: Well, during the Viet Nam War, the U.S. kind of waged a “secret war” in Laos, because the Ho Chi Minh Trail goes through Laos. And the they wanted to destroy the trail so that the Vietnamese couldn’t use it, or as a strategic thing. These bombs that they used… They’re about tennis ball sized, they were brightly colored (like yellow) bombs. What happened is that when they would drop these bombs, a lot of them wouldn’t detonate, and now, forty-some years later, a lot of them are actually still in the country. And they look like toys. So that’s a common thing. Where children have to be taught to not pick up something that looks like a little tennis ball because it’s just this little dormant bomb. It’s still just littered throughout the country and has rendered so much of the land unusable. Especially for a country like Laos, that is largely a farming economy.
I don’t know the actual number offhand, but basically the U.S. spent hundreds of millions of dollars bombing the country of Laos, but just in recent years has contributed $7 million, $13 million, to the clean up the bombs.
I work for the organization called Legacies of War, that helps to lobby Congress to make it an issue with them. But it’s just been a very… almost half-hearted attempt to help the country of Laos. But the country just has remained stagnant for so long.
Do you feel like Laos is forgotten in the discussion of the war?
BANGBAY: I definitely feel like Laos gets forgotten in the discussion about the war. Just by the type of people that we are. Lao people are very passive, and very pacifist, and just too laid back in a sense. Especially compared to Western standards. We’re not out shouting to the people how we have Lao pride. I mean we’re trying now, these days. But it’s definitely because of a Western influence.
CHOMCHAY: Yeah, we’re just so laid back. I think part of our culture is to be humble and not be so showy, it is difficult to express ourselves in that way. And so, when the discussion of the Viet Nam War or any discussion about Southeast Asia, Laos is typically forgotten about because it’s sort of a country that’s in the middle of everything, but yet it doesn’t have kind of a strong presence, because maybe the people are so passive.
On Lao culture:
CHOMCHAY: I mean, I feel like we’re generally a happy, warm kind of people. So, any Lao person you meet, you end up getting invited to their house, maybe eat some of their food. It’s usually a nice experience.
What do you think everyone should know about Laos in that time of war?
BANGBAY: I think it’s important for people to know that Laos was involved in the war, but not because the Lao people had anything to do with it. It was just the proximity to Viet Nam and just a convenience for the US to use Laos as like a piece in the war. But we weren’t involved. We never asked for it, and in a sense. Yeah, we were used and forgotten.
BANGBAY: I feel like I’ve learned a lot about the war, just from different peers I have, particularly people involved with Legacies of War. Our parents and their parents are starting to talk more about that time. But some of the stories I know are from just people who are actually soldiers during the war, like American soldiers. There was this one story I heard from a soldier of that time, where he was one of the guys in charge with loading the planes full of bombs.
And so, what happened sometimes is that these bombs were destined to be dropped on Viet Nam, but if for whatever reason they couldn’t drop it on their target, and you know they couldn’t land the plane with the bombs, they would just drop it in Laos. They would look down from their plane and just see fields and not see that people lived there. It’s almost a bigger insult to bomb someone that you have nothing against.
The Lao and The Hmong
On the relationship between Lao and Hmong people:
BANGBAY: Sometimes I feel like the Hmong people blame Lao people for driving them out of Laos. But I feel like “Hey, we were driven out too.” We weren’t part of the problem, we were in this together. But you know, in terms of like culture. Yeah, our language is different. I don’t feel like we had much interaction with them growing up.
CHOMCHAY: Well I think historically, the Lao people have tried to colonize the Hmong and try to get Hmongs to try to forget their language and culture and heritage to try to be more mainstream Lao. So it’s like this cycle of oppressing, suppressing, oppressing, suppressing. So, it’s a bit strained. And we almost act like separate people from separate countries.
So now, they’re trying. The Lao government is trying to make it better for the relationship between Lao and Hmong. Because there’s still kinda this fight of like these folks want to be a certain way, and then these folks want to be a certain way. I think they’re still having that communication to try to have a better relationship.